The History of Higher Education in Bloomsbury and Westminster

Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Institute of Education, University of London

King's College London

London School of Economics

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Royal Holloway, University of London

School of Oriental and African Studies

Senate House Library, University of London

University College London

University of Westminster


The Institute of Commonwealth Studies was established in 1949. Proposals for a University of London Institute of Empire Studies date from 1943, the change in name coming about "in view of recent developments in the political sphere", predominantly the desire of India to attain the status of a republic. India's intentions also led to the 1949 London Declaration, now considered by many to be the start of the modern Commonwealth.

The University's Vice-Chancellor, Lillian Penson, had been a strong champion of the Institute, and remained Chair of the Committee of Management until 1961. Dame Lillian Penson's personal records are held at the Archives collection at Royal Holloway University of London. Professor (William) Keith Hancock was appointed as the first Director of the Institute, and remained in post until 1956. The Institute's Archives include papers relating to his chairmanship of the Buganda Constitutional Committee, 1954 and papers collected and generated during his work on the biography and selected papers of Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950).

Bust of Sir Keith Hancock

Photograph of Alan Jervis's bust of Sir Keith Hancock (1952) the Institute's first Director.

Interior of 27 Russell Square

Interior of 27 Russell Square (1949) showing Library and murals by Henry Bird.
(Sound Stills Ltd)

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies was first located at 27 Russell Square, a building it still occupies today. The houses in this row of buildings were designed by John Burton and constructed by Thomas Lewis, being completed by 1810, during the height of the Napoleonic War. The house was occupied throughout the 19th century by substantial middle-class families and from 1904 to 1949 by the Licensed Victuallers' Central Protection Society of London. The building was extensively damaged as a result of bombing during World War Two and required considerable work to repair. The building was furnished partly through gifts of Empire woods from universities and colleges throughout the Commonwealth. Mr Henry Bird, mural painter, scene-designer and art-historian, was commissioned to depict two 'Commonwealth family trees' for spaces above the new fire places.

The Institute was intended to be (and remains) focused on interdisciplinary, advanced study on and about the Commonwealth and its members, primarily concerned with the social sciences (including history). While the Institute carried out research itself it also had an important role to facilitate and support the research of others, through such as activities as lectures and seminars and the provision of a library. From its inception the Institute had a teaching role, initially in a series of seminars for 'Devonshire' students - that is members of the Colonial Service who had returned to the UK for a period of study to enlarge on their experience of duty overseas. From 1966 the Institute taught the MA in Area Studies (Commonwealth), and currently teaches an MA in Human Rights, and MSc in Globalization and Development.

In 1957 the Institute began expansion into 11 Woburn Square (now occupied by the Institute of Education). From 1975 it began to occupy space at 28 Russell Square and in 1982 the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, including the newly established Australian Studies Centre, took up full occupation of this house. Built at the same time as no. 27, 28 Russell Square had been originally occupied by Chief Justice Abbot (Lord Tenterden).From 1949, 28 Russell Square had hosted parts of the University of London School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies and from 1963 to 1972 part of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

Exterior of 27 Russell Square

Exterior of 27 Russell Square (centre) with 28 Russell Square to left of picture.
(Sound Stills Ltd)

Sketch drawing of Institute premises

Sketch drawing of Institute premises (28 and 27 Russell Square) first used for 1985-85 Annual Report.

In 1994 the University of London's School of Advanced Study was established, drawing together the Institutes of Commonwealth Studies, Classical Studies, English Studies, Germanic and Romance Studies, Latin American and United States Studies (now the Institute for the Study of the Americas), Warburg Institute, Institute of Historical Research and Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. In summer of 2006 the Institute and its Library and Archives will leave Russell Square and move into the Senate House building.

The Institute's active collection of archives began in 1960 with the decision to collect material from political parties across the Commonwealth. Collecting was ongoing and this collection was recently the subject of a project to improve access to and use of collections of political ephemera ( archives collections further expanded in 1963 when the Institute began actively collection items relating to the colonial history of Ceylon, as part of a collaborative project led by Oxford University. Current strengths of the collection include historic and contemporary material on the West Indies and Caribbean, and on South Africa and the anti-apartheid struggle.
For further information please visit the Institute's Archive and Special Collections webpages.

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